Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Scary amount of work to do

It turns out, changing genre was a lot more work than I anticipated. I'm mostly there, I still have 70 pages (of 500) to sort out, including a whole scene that needs rewriting. Of course, it's just about the busiest time of the year with family... I'm making myself work, and I'm getting there.

It's humbling to have some many edits to do. Editors know about the impact your words will have on a reader, because the writer is always very close to it by the time they hand a much tidied and rewritten draft in. It would be easy to get really defensive about a word change or a question, but if they impact on the editor they will raise questions in the reader. My terrible tendency to repeat words has been thoroughly reviewed. My painstaking research has been challenged - it's no good knowing something is true if I haven't convinced the reader. It doesn't have to be true, it has to feel true, as well. For example, I know women didn't curtsy in the 16th century - they bowed. But would a modern reader know? Would they expect a curtsy? I don't want to be wrong, but it needs to feel correct when you read it. I want to reader to feel they can trust the writer's research, and just enjoy the story without being distracted. So sometimes we have to find a compromise between correct and plausible. 

When I first started writing seriously, accepting being edited was one of the hardest things. It's still difficult sometimes, but mostly I'm hugely grateful for that distant perspective. And happy to keep making the book better (and who knows, more successful).  

I can't wait to get this back and take a bit of a breather. I feel like I've been deep in Sage's world with two books back to back, and it will be a relief to step back for a few weeks over Christmas. 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The wonder of ending a draft

I feel like a hundred balloons are pulling me up, I feel relaxed, rested - I've just finished a draft. It's a wonderful feeling BUT just before I could really fall into a celebration with chocolate and a good book in the warmth, I got the line edits back for A baby's Bones. I changed the genre of the book from spooky, paranormal to crime, and it shows. there are thousands of changes. I'm grateful, my editor has done a fabulous job and made the book much, much better. But I can see it's going to be a lot of work. 

To make myself feel slightly better, I accepted all of her changes in one go, just to see what it looks like. Much the same as before, only clearer and better. I've found that being published has taught me more about writing than even the best course. So I will put the edit off until tomorrow and have a deadline of 4th December.  Hopefully it won't take that long, it's beautifully laid out in track changes and hundreds of comments, so all I have to do is fill in the blanks and consider the reader.

Which is such an important part of writing. I've managed to set a book on 'the Island' without mentioning the Isle of Wight until chapter 5 (oops) and not considered the US readers at all. I'm going to have to edit with an eye to explaining and describing for a reader from, maybe, Texas or Vermont. I love the idea that Sage and her book will travel much further afield than I will.  

Meanwhile, November is grey and raining and cold today, and December is just around the corner. I can't wait. We have done something that feels a bit radical - we've decided to stop giving (and receiving) presents this year. I don't need anything, and honestly, it's just a lot of worry and stress about what to buy not to mention the expense. We have a lot of kids, and they have partners, and now they're making babies. The last few years my main feeling has been relief that it's over. I don't want that any more. This year we are welcoming our lovely people, we will feast and play and catch up on all our news. The only presents will be for Lily, our one year old granddaughter. That feels right, and I'm glad we're reducing the stress for all our kids as well.

After the edits are done, I will be able to start a new project - which seems like a complete luxury. I love writing new stuff... 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Falling Leaves, Autumn Seas

When I write, the season creeps into the books and I've really noticed it this year. I started the contemporary strand in March, biting winds, sudden showers, bulbs up early. It was a good spring, and I think it was for Sage, too. I started the historical strand at the end of May and wrote through the heat of the summer, and something of the hot days and stormy nights fed into the narrative. The first full draft is done and off to my lovely agent. I wish I had more time to tidy it up before she reads it, but there just isn't time.

I used to love autumn, but it's filled with anniversaries so it's bitter sweet. We're enjoying wandering around RHS Rosemoor watching the flowers go over, laden with seedheads. The hedges are full of berries, and the 'old country folk' are predicting a hard winter (like the trees know in advance!). I've got two 'new country folk' observations: lots of berries means we had a good spring AND there will be lots of jam. 

The weeks between handing the book over and having to get down to a serious edit have been filled at least in part by the Appledore Book Festival - a celebration of all things literary and despite the small village setting, it had some really big hitters. The picture is by Becky Bettesworth, and is looking down Vernon's Lane to the sea via the Hockings van and the gigs. It captures this lovely village!

My favourites were Ian Rankin, Karen Maitland and Sandy Brown. I was stewarding both events Karen ran and bought her new book, The Plague Charmer, which I've just started. I should just mention that The Owl Killers got me into writing historical. She's also an enthusiastic speaker about her historical period - the first wave of plagues in the 1300s.

Ian Rankin's event was packed out, but he's always such a great speaker and I always learn something new. One of the things I was reminded of is the way he writes - no plan, no pre-arranged structure. He finds the story as he goes, and I think that's the main reason I have found writing A Shroud of Leaves so difficult. Having a structure already agreed made it impossible to include elements I really liked along the way. I don't know if A Shroud of Leaves works as well as A Baby's Bones yet because i'm too close to see it at the moment, but it was harder to write. I'm going to go back to rambling away finding the story, and I am following in giant's footsteps.   

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Drafts, redrafts, edits...

It's that time again. I've written a first draft, organised a rough second draft, then comes the agony that is the structural edit. Normally, I leave this for a number of months. That bit of distance means I can come to it fresh, and I can see what needs doing (hopefully). But I don't have time. I want to get this third draft off to my agent, where she will cast her wise eye over it and point out where it needs work, help or CPR. So I gave it to my son and he has done a magnificent job of giving me fantastic feedback on where it isn't working. (I especially like the bits where I think I have been especially poetic and he puts a line through it with the crisp comment "literary wankfest"). So, having worked out what's wrong with it (not enough crime, too much archaeology, whiny lead character, no suspense and a thin ending) I have to put it right. I'm giving myself seven working days and possibly the weekend in between. This is going to be a slog, but in a way it's invigorating. I feel like a proper author with deadlines and so on!

One of the advantages of working like this is I should be able to hold the complete book in my head by the end of it, so the edits will be much easier to do and follow through. I need a whole new plot strand so that will feed into the historical strand and a couple of my characters don't follow through.

The downside is it's full on and tiring and I was hoping to spend some time away before the winter (in our caravan) and we're doing our kitchen at the same time. No pressure then. 

A fellow writer asked the other day about how many drafts I do. Actually, it's eight or ten, and I hope that isn't discouraging because the later redrafts don't take all that long. The first draft takes me the longest, and I probably only have 50-60k words. The second draft is where I write all the linking chapters, get the main plot strands down and weld it into a sort of book. Then a solid structural edit starts to make the book ready for my lovely agent. I'm still substantially rewriting at this point and the book grows to around 100k words. This is the biggest edit, and I will read it aloud right through to make more changes. My agent will come back with more structural edits and I'll work on it again before the editor sees it. So she will get draft 4 or 5 at least. I'll work on her suggestions, that will be draft 6, there may be another round of tweaks but this will only take me a week or two. Then the copy edit will need a complete tidy up, sorting out repetitions, clumsy dialogue and wording, adding necessary description etc. I'll probably tweak further after the proof edit but this will just be words here and there. One final read through out loud and it's as ready as it will be. That's a lot of work. This publishing malarkey is a lot of work. So I'd better get on with it!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Bronze Age

I'm loving all this research into the distant past. having been camping in our tiny caravan recently, I'm very conscious of the basic human needs of shelter and water, access to food and other people. Our society has become increasingly reliant on wholesalers and retailers, communication technology and manufactured housing. I know this isn't all a bad thing, obviously we're not all squatting in roundhouses in the dark after a day of trying to harvest enough food to keep us alive for the whole winter. Life is potentially enormously better (although I'm aware I'm not speaking about everyone's life here - abject poverty still haunts large swathes of the world's population, as we know).

But imagining my character's journey through actual cold and hunger has made me very grateful for what we have what we take for granted. Our ancestors may have had bronze technology but most people relied on stone tools, the familiar animals we use now for food were lean, half wild creatures whose needs we had to place alongside our own. Dogs were only recently tamed from wolves, as wild and dangerous as gold rush huskies. All strangers were potential enemies. The woods were literally full of wolves and bears. We had to tread a fine line between high levels of vigilance and being paralysed with terror. The only thing between us and predators were spears and fire. There's evidence that if we did kill a predator, we ate it. Ate every part of a bear including its bone marrow and rendered fat. Winter was profoundly dangerous, and a lot of the work of the year was about filling that hunger gap and ensuring enough shelter, clothing and wood for burning. Life was short and incredibly hard work.

Meanwhile I find a tiny shiver of the past sitting outside until the light goes, the cold already creeping into me, the dew dropping onto my face. If I get my clothes damp or get too cold I won't be able to sleep, I'm so pampered. Sitting out in the dark of a campsite miles from a town brings out millions of stars, but every sound seems magnified. We don't have predatory animals anyway, just the odd human. But I'm scared of the cold, damp, dark, it's hardwired into me. I long for a warm hut, a wood fire, a couple of guard dogs and spear carrying hunters. This is the view of a roundhouse at Lower Merripit, where Russell did a workshop. When the fire is lit the smoke fills the roof so you have to sit down.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Green gatherings

I've just come back from the Green Gathering, a solar powered gathering of people who want to live a bit lighter. The food was mostly vegan (although the grill cheese stand and wood fired pizza places did a brisk trade) and all veggie. Recycling was amazing, they had places for everything. There wasn't a piece of litter from start to finish, no drunks, few drugs, lots of happy, co-operating people. We needed help moving our caravan to help our neighbours, four stewards appeared and sorted it. The medical tent had staff herbalists. There were more than enough loos (always a potential bugbear) and they were well kept. Without cars, kids ran free and clambered through trees, enjoyed all the music, fell asleep to the sound of great music. Two mini thunderstorms entertained. We heard new music, new poets. We enjoyed art and dance, there was every kind of free workshop from campaigns to laughter yoga. We watched the sun go down, we talked about the world and our impact on it, we shared stories and songs. I can recommend it. Sometimes your soul needs feeding more than your mind or your body. Music for fourteen hours a day and the odd plate of bhajis (courtesy of Lalita's South Indian Street Food), heaven. We fell in love with a  new singer/songwriter (Bea Everett) and an amazing didge player (Sika). We laughed at the Antipoet. I met up with a writer friend, Russell with songwriting ones. 

The architect of this new freedom is our elderly, tiny caravan, which we have lovingly painted with left over turquoise emulsion and made curtains from old upholstery fabric, dyed deep orange and fuchsia pink. We've padded the beds, created a tiny bathroom, filled the lockers with essentials like tea bags and hot chocolate and put a tow bar on the car (which nearly cost as much as the caravan). So far, it's enabled my elderly lumbar spine to enjoy camping four times, and it's been lovely. Russell installed a solar panel and a 12V circuit of lights and chargers (for laptop and phones) so I can camp away from the campervans with their satellite TVs and wetrooms. Instead, we can sit on the edge of a field, under a hedge, by the stream. Lovely. I look forward to more Green Gatherings. 

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Strange Stories

It's been a long time since I updated my blog but only because I've been working pretty constantly. Having a two book deal with Titan books meant writing the first draft as quickly as possible. the way I work is to write write write like mad, flaws, mistakes and cock ups as I go. Then I leave it until i forget about it. then I take it out and read it.

When I finally looked at the first draft of  A Shroud of Leaves, I realised it was a) better than I thought and b) very, very far from finished. The whole historical strand is raw and light, and doesn't really explore the main themes at all. So I've been knocking the historical strand into shape and finding bits that need to go into the contemporary strand. I've also realised how satisfying it was to write the previous sequel, partly because no-one else had to look at it! It's definitely more fun writing for yourself but it seems less urgent, you're not letting anyone down.

Meanwhile, I've had a couple of small publishers have a look at The Asylum Sisters, after I spent the first half of the summer encouraging new writers to put books out to have people have a look at them. I've been promoting the Mslexia Indie Presses Guide:

This little gem has a lot of great information in it about lots of small publishers. Don't let the name put you off, this is not a 'indie' publisher in the sens of self publishing. As I've said before, I'm still not convinced about self publishing, but I'd be very happy to be published by some of these houses. It was scary sending off the submissions - most accept chapters etc. by email - but enlightening. I've had the most generous feedback, giving me that invaluable resource - a first reaction to a read of the book. It's made me wonder if i can strengthen the book by concentrating on one of the characters, leaving her to observe the twins behaviour. Which would create more mystery, more suspense. Incredibly helpful feedback and all it cost me was a bit of nail-biting and a bit of confidence. I know self publishing seems like an easy option but I've read some fantastic books by local writers that would have been better exposed to a structural edit from an editor. It seems people are afraid to exhaust all the publishing avenues before resorting to self publishing, with all its disappointments. 

So I urge my friends and writing colleagues: I wouldn't give up until every agent, every editor and every competition is tried. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Writing a PLAN - a new skill.

I hate being bad at something. If I sign up for a course I tend to do a lot of preliminary research first so i don't appear stupid, which when you think about it, is stupid as I've now signed up to do a course about something I already know a lot about. I find it really hard to sign up for something I'm naturally bad at like - languages. You won;t see me struggling with basic French any time soon. But here I am signed up to a new publisher (yay!) with a great new editor (yay!) who wants me to write a book plan. What's the anti-yay? Help? Howl like a wolf stuck in a hole? 

Like a lot of writers (surveys suggest about half) I start out with an idea and write and it sort of - happens. Then I run out of ideas and it's really nerve-racking, sweating in from the the keyboard in case it doesn't come back. So far, it always comes back but the new bits won't fit with the first bits and then a nasty feeling character C shouldn't come into the story at the beginning after all creeps in - writing like this means a lot of rewriting and restructuring in the second, third and ninth draft. It's downright inefficient.   

Writing a plan makes perfect, brilliant sense. I should definitely do it. Only now I've written A Baby's Bones and now I have to write a plan for the sequel, I'm finding it really hard. I have a story (the easy bit for me) but structuring it in advance has been a real challenge but I think I've done it. It's not a good outline and I have had a lot of help (thank you so much to Ruth and Jane and others who have helped) and I know it sort of meets the basic requirement for an outline - it runs linearly from the discovery of a body to the solving of the crime via some interesting chapters. 

Now my worry is - what happens if an even more fun idea occurs during the writing of the book? What happens if it veers wildly off course into the nettles of improvisation? I do have an editor and agent to run ideas past, of course, but I don't want to bother them all the time. 

On the very plus side - I can get on and write any part of the book - I could make a list of chapters and scenes and draft them out of sequence. That really appeals, I could write the scary bits when I'm sitting at a sunlit desk  - rather than sit up at two in the morning next to a window with no curtains and write the dark stuff until I can't sleep. I just wonder if they would be as creepy!

It's been a positive experience and I hope that in future I will be one of those half planned, half go-with-the-flow writers who plan islands of plot to aim for - I think that would be helpful. 

On that note, I recently wrote the first half of a book called I Will Find You and I actually did have a bit of a plan for that. I'm getting the hang of this writing business - about time.
Picture of my sunlit desk.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Research into werewolves and monsters

Yesterday, A Baby's Bones was sent off to my new editor. Today, I'm free to fall into research for book 2. Editing is a creative process, of course, but new stories are yummy to come up with. One of the places I love (after the Island, which will always be special) is the New Forest, and I'm planning a 'research' trip to find some puzzle/crime for Sage to work on. It helps that it's close to her university and it's a very ancient bit of landscape. It has the highest concentration of really old trees of any woodland in Britain or even Western Europe, with oaks up to 600 years old and hollies over 300 years. 

It's got a lot of history, too, since William the Conqueror established it as a royal forest. I love walking in the forest, you can very easily feel like you're alone, just the sounds of forest birds or deer and ponies spooking you. It's my favourite bit of the drive down to the Island, too, as we head for Lymington and the ferry. 

So I'm looking at bronze age barrows in the forest, known locally as 'butts'. 

I'm sure Sage would have loved to get her trowel on an unexcavated, unknown version. I'm going to play around with the idea until I have a plot, then see what the editor thinks. Should be fun!